north Maine woods

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Last week I took a trip into the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, a new addition to the National Parks system directly east of Baxter State Park. The Monument was designated in August, after years of effort by Elliotsville Plantation (the former owners of the land, a foundation set up by the philanthropist and former owner of Burt’s Bees to advocate for a National Park in the area) to donate the land to the National Park Service. There was, and to some degree still is, vehement opposition to the Monument from a loud and increasingly small part of the population in the region, but the local attitude now mostly seems to range from fully in support to indifferent, which is just fine by me.

Haskell Deadwater on the Penobscot River, with Bald Mountain rising in the distance.

I had been into Katahdin Woods & Waters twice in the past few years before it was a National Monument, but only for short day-trips. Now that it’s officially part of the National Parks, I wanted to do a longer trip into the wilderness before the wider world started showing up in larger numbers. So for my goal of finding some quiet time in the deep woods, the trip was a wild success. I saw only a handful of people on the first day, but only one person (my friend Tom) during the three days after that.

Haskell Pitch on the Penobscot River.

Aside from the fine solitude in the Monument, how was the rest of the visit? While the Monument doesn’t have quite the wow-factor that Baxter does in many cases, it has plenty to offer.

On their own, KWW’s trails and campsite are pleasant in a low-key way. The trails I saw were mostly old logging roads, groomed so that Tom (on his fat-bike) and I (on my cross-country skis) could cover plenty of ground. There are several lean-tos and tent sites in the Monument, many of them on the shores of the Penobscot River, accessible by foot, bike, or canoe, and I figure they are quite nice, and fairly easy to get to. There are also two cabins, complete with wood stoves and bunks. I stayed in one of the cabins for this trip, which, of course, is the most popular option in winter.

Wood stove in Big Spring Brook Hut.

The Monument has a few fine viewpoints, although I only made it to one on this trip— a low mountain called The Lookout, with a nice view of the southern half of the Monument and some of the peaks in Baxter. You’ve probably heard from some of the naysayers that the only attraction in the Monument is a view of Katahdin, but you can just call them grumpy spoilsports. There’s plenty of beauty to be found on trails along wild rivers and ponds, and through deep northern forests. Some people will always complain about the Monument because of their own political leanings, and they’ll probably never enjoy it. That’s their loss, but I won’t waste my time trying to convince them otherwise.

From The Lookout, over the southern half of the Monument.

Another aspect of the Monument experience that I need to mention is staying at a Maine sporting camp. There are several lodges and sporting camps near the Monument, which are an old Maine tradition for hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, and other outdoor recreationists. Think of them as semi-rustic hotels, generally small and family-run operations, with family-style meals and tons of local knowledge to mine. I stayed at Mt Chase Lodge for a night on either end of this trip, and it really added to the whole experience.

One of the primary arguments for the Monument has always been that it would boost the local economy by bringing visitors to the area to spend money, so I see staying at one of the lodges as a concrete way of showing my support for public lands in general, and KWW specifically. And what do you know, since the Monument designation, there has been an increase in sporting camp visitors, real estate sales, and new investment in the area. Imagine that.

Tom leaving Big Spring Brook on his fatbike after a cozy night by the wood stove.

So, one other point.

Our governor, who is known for many of his boneheaded statements over the past six years, is also known for being consistently opposed to just about everything related to public lands and conservation. I’ve talked about this before, so I don’t want to rehash too much. He’s always been opposed to the Monument, despite the fact that the majority of the people in Maine support it. He even took it upon himself to ask the president to revoke the Monument status, even though it’s unclear that that’s even possible, none of Maine’s congressional delegation supports that, and even local politicians who were opposed are now more interested in moving forward with the Monument.

The governor loves to claim that the Monument will hurt local businesses, and that “it’s nothing but a cut-over woodlot” (meaning it was logged recently and the forest is mostly new growth). It’s easy enough to see that local businesses haven’t been hurt, although they weren’t exactly in a strong place for the decades before the Monument. As for the wood-lot claim, the governor seems ignorant of the fact that another famous park was also mostly clear-cut before being bought by a wealthy philanthropist and given to the people of Maine: Baxter State Park. The most valuable part of the Monument, as I see it, is the fact that the forest within it will be preserved for future generations. Without one very forward-looking individual, Baxter State Park wouldn’t be what it is today. Give it a hundred years, and it will be just as wild as Baxter’s deep forests. In the meantime, it will still be a perfectly pleasant place to spend some time in the deep forests of northern Maine.

So far I had lived out of my backpack for four five days, and then we camped next to Tom’s car at South Branch Pond campground. We had left his car there on the first day in the park, in order to hike from the south end to the north end, but we still had another day in this less-traveled section. In the morning, I packed one more night’s worth of supplies that had been left in the car, and set off on another little-used trail. Tom and Chris would drive to another trailhead for a shorter hike to tonight’s campsite, while I explored a few more backcountry ponds.

Up on the short Barrell Ridge, a cloudy morning view of Bald Mountain and the other northern outposts of the park.

Up on the short Barrell Ridge, a cloudy morning view of Bald Mountain and the other northern outposts of the park.

The northeastern corner of Baxter State Park is mostly taken up by Grand Lake Matagamon, but there’s a cluster of small mountains and ponds just to the south of the lake. Most of the ponds have small campsites on the shore that are popular with anglers and folks looking to get away from crowds. We fit the latter category.

Not your "soft" granite of the White Mountains. Actually, I don't know what kind of rock this is, but the blocky chunks tear up the shoes faster than even the sandpapery granite I'm used to.

Not your “soft” granite of the White Mountains. Actually, I don’t know what kind of rock this is, but the blocky chunks tear up the shoes faster than even the sandpapery granite I’m used to.

But to get to that region, I first had to cross over the northern shoulder of The Traveler Range and into the basin of Middle Fowler Pond. On the way I crossed a few ledges and Barrell Ridge, a rocky mini-summit with plenty of bare bedrock and views into the east. As I walked up the sharp rocks, I reminded myself that I need to find the proper name for this kind of low-elevation rocky outcrop, covered in reindeer lichen, short alpine plants, and occasional krummholz. Internet to the rescue! Low- and mid-elevation balds, and rocky summit heaths are some of my favorite hiking terrains.

Middle Fowler Pond's north shore, with warm water and fine swimming before lunch.

Middle Fowler Pond’s north shore, with warm water and fine swimming before lunch.

After Barrell Ridge, I tromped through increasingly disused trail down to the Fowler Ponds, wondering how long it had been since someone had hiked this route. Lots of people might think of this as a bad thing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the solitude. On a bedrock slab at the north end of the pond, the water was so inviting that I just had to go for a swim. As with a few days before in Howe Brook, a quick swim in mountain waters was like jumping into the fountain of youth. Afterward, I lay out on the rocks in the sun for a while, relaxed as I could be. Two day hikers showed up after a while, but they were equally impressed by the silence of the pond. By the end of the day, I could count on one hand the number of people I’d encountered, so I still felt pretty good about the wilderness feel of the area.

The viewpoint furthest to the northeast in Baxter Park, Horse Mountain. The valley of the East Branch of Penobscot River is as densely forested as you can imagine.

The viewpoint furthest to the northeast in Baxter Park, Horse Mountain. The valley of the East Branch of Penobscot River is as densely forested as you can imagine.

Eventually I left Fowler Pond and continued through the woods, passing along several other pond shores on my way to the next short mountain. Horse Mountain, the northeasternmost mountain in the park, is quite short, and has no view from the summit since a fire tower was removed many years ago, but the cliffs on the eastern side of the mountain had a fine, quite view of the Penobscot River valley. While the view showed some evidence of humanity, in the occasional logging road or a float plane flying by down below, it was a fairly relaxed evidence of humanity. I sat and enjoyed the solitude for nearly an hour before heading back down.

An early evening campsite at Long Pond Pines.

An early evening campsite at Long Pond Pines.

I ended the day by meeting up with Tom and Chris once again at Long Pond Pines campsite, which many park rangers had mentioned as a favorite. A piney grove on the eastern edge of a small (but long) pond was only a few miles from the park tote road, but it felt like a purely wild area. We sat around a blazing campfire in the evening, listening to nothing more than the crackle of dry wood and the plaintive calls of a lone loon making his way up and down the pond. That was something I’d been missing all summer, since I hadn’t spent any time on remote mountain ponds in the northeast– a quiet pondside campsite, the lone loon calling, and the silence of the wilds make for the most relaxing kind of camping on a backpacking trip.

Long Pond, silent in the evening but for the cries of the loon and the whine of the mosquito.

Long Pond, silent in the evening but for the cries of the loon and the whine of the mosquito.

This would be our last night with a full day of hiking ahead of us, so I went to sleep knowing that the end of this glorious trip was near. Despite having had no contact with the outside world in almost a week, I had no desire to get back to it anytime soon. I could stay at this campsite all my life if I had to.

A bog next to Long Pond, separated by a tiny ridge (esker), which made for fine camping.

A bog next to Long Pond, separated by a tiny ridge (esker), which made for fine camping.

Katahdin over Rainbow Lake, seen from one of The Nature Conservancy's campsites near the AT.

Katahdin over Rainbow Lake, seen from one of The Nature Conservancy’s campsites near the AT.

As I prepare to finish mapping the Maine AT for my smartphone apps, I’m faced with hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness for the third time. Planning this backpacking trip is normally not the easiest task– the trail is remote, and transportation between the two ends requires nearly three hours of driving each way. I’m complicating things even more by adding much more than the official Appalachian Trail route to my plans. I’d like to share some of my planning resources for anyone who wants to see more of this magical region than just the Appalachian Trail– this section of the AT is one of the most beautiful and rewarding of the entire trail, but it’s possible to add quite a bit more to the experience.

Jo-Mary Mountain over Cooper Pond, an obscure AT side trail.

Jo-Mary Mountain over Cooper Pond, an obscure AT side trail.

What is the 100 Mile Wilderness?
The word “wilderness”, and the 100 Mile Wilderness existed long before the National Wilderness Act, but people seem to have forgotten this. Many people from away imagine that the 100 Mile Wilderness will be a place free of motorized traffic, untouched by humans, undeveloped in any way. This is not the case. And yet, the area is still more wild than many National Wilderness areas.

The wilderness in question here refers to the most remote section of the Appalachian Trail– between Route 15 near Monson and the Golden Road near Millinocket, the trail crosses no major roadways, and hikers cannot access towns in the way that they can further south on the trail. But there is human development in this area– this region of northern Maine has historically been home to major logging operations, sporting camps, and homesteads, some of which are still present today. Hikers cross several maintained logging roads which are used by loggers as well as visitors to sporting camps and primitive campsites. Besides the AT the area is a wealth of lakes, rivers, and deep forests, all of which are popular with hunters, fishers, paddlers, campers, and hikers.

Nahmakanta Lake from Nesuntabunt Mountain.

Nahmakanta Lake from Nesuntabunt Mountain.

Who Owns the 100 Mile Wilderness?
Until relatively recently, the region was mostly privately owned by logging companies and individuals. Since the 1970s, there has been a big push to protect much of the land for conservation and recreation. Much of the land you see from Whitecap Mountain or the Barren-Chairback Range is still privately owned (though open to the public in most cases), but there is also a large patchwork of conservation land in the region. It can be confusing to sort out, but there’s plenty of information out there. In no particular order, here’s what I’ve found.

Hikers looking down on Billings Falls, part of the Gulf Hagas gorge.

Hikers looking down on Billings Falls, part of the Gulf Hagas gorge.

  • The National Park Service has acquired a strip of land around the Appalachian Trail for most of the Maine Appalachian Trail where it doesn’t run through other public land. For most of the AT in Maine, this is a narrow strip of land, at least 1000 feet wide around the AT. It also surrounds the entire Gulf Hagas trail system in the 100 Mile Wilderness, since the Gulf is a National Natural Landmark.
  • Baxter State Park is the crown jewel of Maine’s parks, originally centered around the state’s high point, Katahdin. The park, nearly 210,000 acres, is not exactly a state park– it receives no state funding, but is instead funded by visitor fees and a private trust set up by Governor Percival Baxter in the 1930s. As such, the rules and regulations of the park are similar but different from the rest of the state park system in Maine. The park is home to several massive lakes, huge tracts of forest, and many of Maine’s highest and most rugged peaks.
  • The Nature Conservancy owns the massive Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area just south of Baxter Park, and almost as large. The Wilderness area has fewer mountains, but makes up for it with equally gorgeous forests and lakes. The AT passes through the area, but there are dozens of primitive campsites and boat launches, as well as some hiking trails besides the AT.
  • The Appalachian Mountain Club recently become a major player in the conservation of the southern end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. They’ve gone about it in their usual fashion, which involves reviving several old sporting camps and building miles of new hiking trails to make the area a full-fledged outdoor recreation destination. Many uninformed AT hikers get all up in a huff about this, thinking the AMC is going to take over the AT like in the White Mountains, but this is not the case. AMC’s camps and trails are separate from the AT, though the trails do intersect and are open to the public
  • Maine Bureau of Public Lands holds a large parcel between TNC’s Debsconeag Lakes and AMC’s Roach Pond lands, centered on Nahmakanta Lake (link here, search for Nahmakanta Public Reserve Land). The Nahmakanta Land has many miles of hiking and multi-use trails, several campsites, and many opportunities for backpacking and paddling.
  • North Maine Woods is the most confusing part of the picture for me, but they basically collect tolls for access to the maze of private roads in the 100 Mile Wilderness area. NMW is an organization that consolidates the fees and regulations of several private landowners (mostly logging companies) in order to provide recreational access.
Rainbow Stream Lean-to on the Appalachian Trail.

Rainbow Stream Lean-to on the Appalachian Trail.

Are There Strict Regulations?
With the various land owners in the 100 Mile Wilderness, planning a trip isn’t quite as easy as many places on the Appalachian Trail. Due to Baxter Park’s reservation system and North Maine Woods’s checkpoints, you’ll likely end up paying fees for day use and camping in the region, but I’ve decided this is a good thing– remember, Baxter Park receives no state funding, and all of the roads in the 100 Mile Wilderness are private, open to the public as a courtesy. The money for maintaining NMW campsites and boat launches comes from checkpoint fees, and the money for Baxter Park’s campsites, trail system, and other operations comes in large part from those day use and camping fees.

If you’re planning to hike from Monson to Katahdin, without driving in on any of the roads between, your only worries will be camping in Baxter Park, and getting home afterward. There’s a trailhead near Monson where you can leave a car, and you might be able to leave a car at Abol Bridge campground (a private campground at the south edge of Baxter Park). Hikers ending their trek through the 100 Mile Wilderness at Baxter Park can register when they arrive at the Katahdin Stream Campground to camp at The Birches campsite, but otherwise all overnight camping must be reserved ahead of time. The Baxter Park Authority is great about helping you make a reservation, though, so this is quite easy. Just don’t wait until the last minute to reserve a site– the more popular campgrounds fill up very quickly.

Boarstone Mountain and Lake Onawa from the Barren Ledges.

Boarstone Mountain and Lake Onawa from the Barren Ledges.

For road access to any of the rest of the 100 Mile Wilderness, you’ll likely pass through a North Maine Woods checkpoint, which means you’ll need to pay a day use or camping fee. NMW’s website is much more helpful now than it was a few years ago, though, so figuring out the best way to deal with fees is not hard.

Looking at Long Pond and Baker Peak from Monument Cliffs on Chairback Mountain.

Looking at Long Pond and Baker Peak from Monument Cliffs on Chairback Mountain.

What Maps and Guides Should I Get?
If you’re planning to hike the Appalachian Trail in the 100 Mile Wilderness, there is no better map and guide than the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s Appalachian Trail Guide to Maine. This is the official ATC guide for Maine. I must say it is, by far, the best official ATC map and guide set out of the bunch. The maps have just the right coloring and detail level, with great elevation profiles. And on the back of each map is a trail description, with mileage and just the right amount of trivia for various points of interest along the way.

For more info on hiking trails in Baxter Park, Map Adventures’ Katahdin Map and AMC’s Baxter Park map are both great. AMC’s map also details AMC’s extensive new trail system in the area near Gulf Hagas and the Barren-Chairback Range.

For a great overview of the 100 Mile Wilderness region, get AMC’s Southern Piscataquis Recreation map, which isn’t waterproof but is a great resource. And, of course, you should check out AMC’s Maine Mountain Guide for good trail information for the area, not to mention the rest of the state.

That’s all for now. Get out there and enjoy the trail!